An Interview with Provost Hai-Lung Dai at the End of His First Year
By Steve Newman, Editor
On March 27th, I again sat down with Provost Dai to reflect on his first year as Provost and to discuss some of his new initiatives—especially his directive to increase the percentage of non-tenure-track faculty on multi-year contracts. I thank him for again making time to talk.
Steve Newman (SN): So, having been Provost for a year now, how are you finding the job?
Hai-Lung Dai (HLD): I’ve had great people to work with. As far as the Faculty Senate is concerned, I find working with Mark Rahdert, working with you, has been very pleasant.
SN: I think Mark’s done an extraordinary job as Senate President. He’s been great.
HLD: Other than that time during the retreat where you guys gave me a hard time... [laughs]
SN [laughs]: It was a frank and open discussion!
HLD: Saying that I was not communicative enough! I learned my lesson; I need to be more careful about process.
SN: I think you’re referring to our reaction to the changes to the academic calendar.
HLD: Yes. I am too much of a person who wants to get things done. Even though I believe I am always thinking of the benefit of the faculty. I know now that just thinking that it’s good for people is not enough.
SN: It’s an interesting thing. There’s both a symbolic and a substantive side. Faculty want to be included because they’re the faculty and think they should have a seat at the table. And then in many cases, there’s the sense that talking to the faculty may actually change the views of those involved in making the decisions.
HLD: That’s right.
SN: One thing that’s not going to elicit any pushback from the faculty, I think, is one of the reasons we’re meeting today, which is your directive on multi-year contracts for the non-tenure-track faculty. At the most recent Faculty Senate, you reported that you’ve told the Deans that you want 60% of NTT faculty on multi-year contracts, clarifying that this is restricted to teaching, not research, faculty. This should be welcome news to all of us, non-tenure-track and tenure track faculty alike. It’s something the Union has been pushing for a long time. It should also be welcome news to our students, since it should improve morale for so many of the instructors who teach them.
People actually applauded, if you remember, at the Faculty Senate Steering Committee, when you first told us of this. I think we all applaud you for the move. I do have some clarifying questions, if you don’t mind.
SN: What is the nature of the directive to the Deans? That is, is this a goal or a mandate?
HLD: I would like to make it a mandate. It has been presented as a mandate to the Deans with the support of President Theobald. To have it done, I have asked all the Deans to provide a list of all the teaching NTTs with the duration of their contracts. And we will actually count the percentage. Of course, how to get to this mandate, whether we can do it immediately in a few months, that might be difficult, given that many people have already been issued contracts. But it is our goal to achieve this in the next fiscal year.
SN: And do you have in mind 60% overall, or 60% in each college and school?
HLD: My goal is to get every college to achieve 60%. On the other hand, there are some colleges that are very small, if they have only 5 NTTs, I cannot say that you have to reach this number because their circumstances may be so different. So if I could get 60% overall I would be very happy. But the goal is to have each college at that number, at least the larger colleges.
SN: I was thinking of my own college, CLA. I think Fox and CST are already over 50%, whereas CLA is very far from this, and Tyler as well.
HLD: We’ll work with the two deans on that. That will also require the department chairs to work on this. From my perspective, there are several considerations to keep in mind in employing NTTs. Programs may change. For example, the recent change in the hiring of NTTs in African American Studies is due to programmatic change.
SN: The chair wanted to go in a different direction.
HLD: And the faculty. Not just the chair, but the faculty. As I understand it, the African American Studies faculty wanted to go in a different direction. So programmatic needs is one factor. The other factor is performance. Newer NTTs have not had the opportunity to demonstrate their success in the classroom, so they have to be on shorter-term contracts. Then the third one is that we may still need fiscal flexibility. If the state cuts us severely, we may have to make adjustments in staff/faculty. Those are the three factors. But when I look at this, really, from the humanistic point of view and from an employment point of view, if a person has demonstrated that he or she is a good teacher, even though you may have programmatic changes and a need for staffing flexibility, I don’t think you need to have 90% of the faculty on one-year contracts. My view is that 60% on longer-term contracts is something we can live with. You still have flexibility there.
SN: And the multi-year contracts will be staggered.
HLD: Right. I put myself in the shoes of these faculty members; “How can I live with year-by-year contracts?” Really, that’s not the right thing to do.
SN: I know somebody in CST who has been here for 20 years, and 18 of those years she’s been on one-year contracts. It’s very difficult. This is also about a shift in how NTTs are envisioned at Temple. When I came here in 2001, there was a six-year cap; and then we created Special Appointments Faculty; and now we have realized that these colleagues are so valuable that we have to think about a long-term arc to their careers.
HLD: They are valuable. Let me clarify that to make our NTTs more respected and better treated is something the Deans have worked since Provost Lisa’s time. At that time, we changed the titles and set up ranks.
Let me put this in a broader context. We have 39,000 students overall, but our tuition is low. So the resources available to us are not high. On the other hand, we have to compete with some of the strongest universities in the country. To even sustain what we have means that we need to have a strong reputation in academics. Everybody knows that a university like Temple has two missions—the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. Dissemination means teaching, discovery means scholarship. If we want to be true to this mission, then we really have to support in engaging in the discovery of knowledge, but as a university that lacks the resources many of our competitors have, we have to focus the resources available to those in research. When I came to CST, I found that it has a relatively small tenure track faculty. Our goal was to make sure that every one of them is supported like faculty at Penn or Harvard or Penn State or Pitt for that matter. Otherwise we can’t compete. For example, we nourish good people and they leave. Then we can never become who we need to be. Part of that support includes a reasonable teaching load. In science, for example, a typical load at top universities is one course per semester for faculty who guide graduate and postdoctoral students to do research.
But immediately you find that once you have the teaching assignment like the top universities, you don’t have enough people to cover the curriculum. So NTTs play a very important educational role, especially for foundational knowledge. There, newly-discovered knowledge takes years to filter into foundational courses. Therefore, NTTs focusing on teaching lower level courses can do that job very well. This is why when I looked at this, I said, we have to treat them better, with respect, with job security. Respect is signified by the title now being “professor of instruction, etc.” Security is what we’re looking at now.
SN: It’s interesting. In CLA, one of the amazing things to me is that I have colleagues whose teaching load is twice mine but are still publishing. As you know, research works differently in the humanities. The procedures and the resources you need are different; you don’t need a lab and don’t need grants.
Another question: Does the teaching faculty include those on the clinical track?
HLD: I’m not sure. They’re called clinical because they are performing a clinical function. There may be obligations to bring in income. When you open up a clinic yourself, you’re on a daily contract.
SN: Right, you can put yourself on a five-year contract...
HLD: But if nobody comes to your clinic, you’re finished. That’s why I exclude research faculty. If the grant support is not there, then...
SN: I’m also curious what response have you received thus far from the deans on this directive if you can say. I know this may be a sensitive question.
HLD: I think the deans want to do this. When we discussed this, they fully embraced it. The CLA Dean, the Dean of the Center for the Arts, they want to embrace this.
SN: You’re not getting a lot of pushback.
HLD: No. It will be a lot of work for some Deans. They’ll need to look over their NTTs and decide which ones will be on multi-year contracts.
SN: A lot of work and a concern you’ve already mentioned about flexibility. But it’s great to hear that they’re on board.
SN: Tenure and Promotion has been a topic of some discussion between you and the FSSC and the Faculty Senate. One thing that has emerged at the FSSC is that the procedures that were put into place after the committee that Ann Hart had convened don’t seem any longer to be in the Temple Policies posted on the web. Does that hint at changes that are coming?
HLD: As I understand it, the policies website is maintained by the University Secretary and only contains policies approved by the Board of Trustees. President Hart’s guidelines are posted on the website of the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Diane Maleson. I always follow the procedure. The only change we made was the number of letters.
SN: And that will be promulgated widely in writing?
SN: Do you have the sense that there are other changes in promotion and tenure coming down the pike? This speaks to broader questions having to do with your vision of the faculty, particularly the tenure track faculty. How do they best prove their value? In what areas do we need to make heavier investments? Decisions about tenure and promotion are the most consequential expression of what we think our tenure track faculty should be doing.
HLD: I would say that we all work toward the goal of trying to have the best performance in the discovery of knowledge and teaching. To me, the procedure is not problematic. For example, take the debate over health care reform. Some people say it’s good, some people say it’s bad. But whether you say it’s good or bad, for the people who say it’s good, you have to implement it well. I don’t find that our tenure procedure is problematic; if you look around at other universities, it’s pretty much the same procedure. But at each stage, when you consider the candidate, how do you apply a complicated standard that is summarized in just a few words.
SN: It comes down to what do we mean by “excellent.”
HLD: We are always looking for excellence as a way to demonstrate outstanding performance and continuing promise of outstanding performance. This is the reason we went from 5 letters to 8. If we want to compete with places like Pittsburgh or Penn State or Indiana, we should adopt similar practices. We shouldn’t be shy. If we have people doing great work, we should let people know. At my prior institution, when I came up for early promotion and tenure, they wanted 8 letters. My department went for 15 letters, and all 15 had to come back saying, “This person is stellar.” I’m bragging now.
SN: Well, you have the track record to back it up.
HLD: We, President Theobald and I, don’t think 8 is an unduly large number. Many institutions use this number. So if the person is great, we want the world to know. We want 8 people in the field to know we have these great people. If you tell us he’s great, then we’ll promote the person. But I’d like to clarify that if there are sometimes timing or field-specific reasons, we will consider exceptions for fewer number of letters.
SN: The faculty I’ve spoken to they don’t necessarily object to 8 letters. One worry is about very highly specialized fields where there are only so many people qualified to judge. As long as the chairs of the committees and the candidates themselves have notice about what the standards are, as long as the rules aren’t changed in the middle of the game and the decisions of departments and colleges are given due weight.
HLD: The letters we send to the reviewers are very clear: “Tell us what great things this person has done. What impact has this person made in the intellectual community? Would you tenure this person at your institution and should he or she be tenured at Temple?” Right now, I’ve been asked to review candidates at institutions of the highest-quality in the country. These letters ask me to rank candidates next to people who have been there for 15-20 years. We’re not, and will not, be doing this at Temple. I would encourage our faculty to think that tenure is a tremendous privilege for any profession, and to realize that tenured positions are very valuable at Temple. Altogether, including the medical school, we have only 900 tenure track faculty. This is a terribly small number for 39,000 students.
SN: And all the research that must get done.
HLD: Really, you need the best people you can get.
SN: And when you tenure someone you’re marrying for life. The person might go to another institution, but they might be here for 40 years.
HLD: Each morning when I come in to work, I’m always thinking: "What do we need to do to make Temple prosper?” I’m not joking that I view my job is to support the president by keeping the printing machine going to pay faculty. Look at our neighbor, St. Joe’s, it is in a fiscal bind. Why? Because they don’t have enough students. One number we should watch is that the number of high school students in America is decreasing. The other number I saw is that the average spending on college education by each family dropped by 10% from 2010 to 2013, from $23,000 to $21,000. We’re talking about tougher competition, and so we have to use our resources wisely to improve our quality and our reputation.
SN: So you’re saying that in a constrained environment like this, making a decision about tenure is all the more consequential.
HLD: Yes. We have to ask: Will this person improve the quality of the department?
SN: A final question on this. When discussions came up about this last year, a question was raised about tenuring rates in comparison to other institutions. Do you have a number in mind?
HLD: I don’t have a number in mind at all. If you look at CST for the five years I was dean, we tenured a lot of people. There was a case where the college committee voted unanimously against this person, but I looked over his materials and thought, “This person is going to be great. The college committee misjudged him.” So I overturned the college committee. He was tenured; he’s doing great.
SN: You’ve tenured lots of people in CST, and they’re all doing well.
HLD: Yes. When I have evidence that this person is going to make it, I will support the case. There is no fixed rate. The only reason I mentioned the rate in Faculty Senate is that if you really look at the number of cases that were actually turned down in the TAUP schools, there were only 2. If you look at this number against the overall rate of those who were granted tenure, it’s really not high.
SN: The sense was that in addition to the 2 people from the TAUP schools there were also people from the Law School and then there are people who were encouraged to withdraw. That does happen sometimes, and it is true that being turned down for tenure is seen as a black mark. But the faculty who raised objections and questions, both in TAUP schools and out, had more than 2 cases in mind.
HLD: The total tenure denials last year including both TAUP and non-TAUP schools were 3. That is still a proportionally low number compared to those who were granted tenure. And, no one is ever encouraged to withdraw. Tenure candidates are made aware of options – including the possibility of withdrawal – all the way along the process. It is always the candidate’s decision whether to withdraw or stand for tenure.
SN: Although RCM (Responsibility Centered Management) doesn’t actually go online until next year, I’ve heard reports that many colleges, as you’d expect, are trying to get ahead of the curve. They want to use this system to their benefit. One worrisome way they’ve been doing that is by increasing class size. In a presentation to our Collegial Assembly that I participated in as a part of our Budget Priorities Committee, I mentioned this as a possible perverse effect of de-centralized budgeting. It generates credit hours quickly, but if the quality of instruction goes down, you may be shooting yourself in the foot. I think that’s the right cliché. Have you seen any troubling effects as someone who has a more global sense of the university?
HLD: Class size is one thing we need to watch. Increasing credit hours is something that all colleges and schools are trying to do. I hope the colleges will address the class size issue based on the need to be flexible in providing opportunities to students. One of the problems we’ve had is that a lot of students needed to take a certain course but the seats were limited and then therefore they don’t graduate in 4 years. That’s a good reason for relaxing class size. But if the class size is to the point that it affects teaching performance, that’s where we have to stop.
One thing we’re watching, of course, is different colleges saying, “I can teach this course also.”
SN: Why can’t Engineering teach First Year Writing?
HLD: Right. We now have a committee to advise me whether an academic program proposal is reasonable or not reasonable. But this is not a complete safety net. I have asked Peter Jones to empower the General Education Executive Committee, to look not just at the content but to see whether the teachers are really appropriate. In the past, if you set up the content then anybody might say, I can teach this content.
SN: That’s good to hear. If we’re looking at steady-state undergraduate enrollment for the next decade, as President Theobald has projected and in most colleges—not just in my home college, though it’s more pronounced there—revenue is so heavily dependent on credit-hour generation, you’ve got a closed system. So while there are other ways to grow through Master’s programs, development, and indirect cost recovery through grants, you can see that people will think that the only way they can prosper is at the expense of some other college. We want this system to produce innovation and commitment to quality but not at the expense of each other.
SN: I have a question about the Honors program. We’ve steered new resources to the Honors program. As Senior Vice Provost Jones has said, in four years, we’ll have a Haverford inside Temple.
HLD: Haverford plus Swarthmore [laughs].
SN: [laughs] Right. My concern is that of course class sizes in Honors are for good reasons very low. Now, colleges certainly have incentives to offer Honors classes. These are well-prepared and eager students. If they end up majoring in your department, you get the pay-off there. But if one looks at it from the perspective of de-centralized budgeting, it comes with a heavy cost because the classes are small. So I‘m wondering if your office has been thinking about giving incentives to the colleges and schools to offer honors classes.
HLD: How to support the Honors program is very important and sometimes a mind-boggling issue. But we do have a plan. Last year we had a substantial increase in Honors students. This cohort is in its freshman year. Our first job was to look structurally at how to give proper support for this large cohort’s first year, particularly at how to provide research opportunities for their summer scholarships and at advising. Right now, the overall size is not that much bigger in Honors. It’s an increase of only 200. But three years from now, we’ll approach doubling the size. During this period, we will find a way to support the Honors students. There are several ways to do this. We could do what you suggested, which is to provide incentives to the colleges and schools. Another model is to do what Penn State and many other colleges do, which is to have an Honors College. Once it becomes its own college, it has independent operations.
SN: One other thing about Honors. At the last Faculty Senate meeting, Joe Schwartz from Political Science suggested that when we’re admitting students to the program, we might want to look a little more broadly than the SAT, in part because of how the SAT is keyed to socio-economic status. It was pointed out to him that even if a student is not initially admitted to the Honors program, a faculty member can contact the program and say, “Hey, I have this really promising student in my class and wonder if she could be considered for Honors.” But you seemed interested at least in contemplating Joe’s suggestion. Is that right?
HLD: Joe’s question speaks to a larger issue. As an educator myself, I see different types of students. You don’t understand physical chemistry but you can memorize the entire textbook and do well on the exam. This person might well be admitted to Honors because he tests well. But I don’t think this student will achieve the goal of the Honors program, to foster independent thinkers and leaders. This is a serious educational problem. If we can find ways to make the selection process produce outcomes more in line with the goals of the program, I would certainly support that.
My daughter is about to go to college. She’s a junior. I talk to her about educational value all the time. I gave a speech to all of the prospective Honors students this past Sunday, and I said that choosing a university should involve four factors: peers, faculty, reputation, and affordability. For the Honors program, you have great peers, especially with the rising standards and number of students in the program. As I said, Haverford plus Swarthmore at Temple. The faculty is excellent. But my daughter asked me, “Should I apply to Georgetown?” I replied: “Why apply to Georgetown? Come to Temple; we have better faculty.” But then we get to reputation. That’s what we have to work on. The reason Temple is Temple is that we stayed true to our founder’s mission. We want to provide access to an excellent education to students who might not have that opportunity otherwise. Yet because we want to provide that access, we are punished in terms of our reputation. I say this not to suggest that we should abandon our mission but that we should be smart about this. I also said that reputation, in the end, isn’t worth much. Ask yourself: Who are the people who really made transformative changes in society. In retail, it’s Sam Walton. Did he even go to college? I’m not sure. Then, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg were all drop outs. I’m not saying students should drop out. But the point is a good education is not just reputation. I even said, “Look at the best presidents in the past decades - the present president excluded, since he will be judged in the future. There is a survey of history professors, and Ronald Reagan was ranked on top. Do you know where he went to college?”
SN: I think he went to Eureka.
HLD [laughs]: You are the only person who seems to know that. I was trying to make the point, just come for a good education. We do want the Honors program to be accessible just as the university is accessible. I know the goal, but how do you get there? How do you do that. Joe and other people can suggest ideas and then I’ll have a discussion with Ruth [Ost] or Peter [Jones] or Bill Black [Director of Enrollment] and they’ll see whether it’s feasible.
SN: We have the Honors Oversight Committee as well.
SN: My final question: You’ve been the Provost for a year, longer than that if we count your service as Interim Provost. What has been the most surprising thing about the job?
HLD: I would say that in general because Temple is unionized I had this impression that things had to be very confrontational with TAUP. One surprise is that that’s not the case and doesn’t have to be the case.
The other part, and we touched on this a bit: I thought I acted with good intentions and had given sufficient thought to some of the decisions I made. And I was criticized by the Faculty Senate leadership for not consulting or communicating enough. That was the unhappy surprise. On this, I would ask my colleagues to give me a break. When you’re planning things in academia so often you have to wait two or three years. I know that. But I’m impatient. I want to get things done. But people should know that I want to be inclusive. To go back to the Academic Calendar, I talked to my staff and a few faculty members and asked them, “Do you think we should have the whole Thanksgiving week off?” And they all thought it was a great idea.
SN: Temple is a big ship to steer. It has a lot of moving parts and it’s enormous. You are the Chief Academic Officer; you set a course for us. It’s true of deans and chairs. But if you don’t get buy-in things actually end up not getting done as efficiently as they need to be.
HLD: Talking about efficiency reminds me of another surprise: President Theobald and I have both been surprised by this. We have found sometimes that when we ask, “Why are we doing this?” It turned out to be an internal rule we’ve set up at one point that for some reason no longer exists, and we’re simply following this rule no matter if the original intent is outdated or it doesn’t make sense for some other reason. We constrain ourselves needlessly. But once we take off that constraint, things can function much better.
SN: That reminds me of a joke. I was a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in grad school, and it’s a very old synagogue, and so a joke I heard from more than one congregant went like this: “How many BHC members does it take to change a light bulb?” “What?! My great-great-grandfather donated that light bulb, and you want to change it?!”
Well, I’d love to continue this, but I have to go teach, and you’ve already been extremely generous with your very valuable time. Thanks so much for this conversation.•